Malawi in New York Times

Surprisingly there is not a single mention of the famine, but perhaps that is a good thing as people tune out when they hear about another "famine in Africa". Instead it talks about how Malawi is losing its forest, and how the loggers manage to survive with their sad profession:

"The problem is that we have nothing else to do," said Mr. Juma, a wiry 33-year-old with a neon green shirt tied around his bare waist, standing over the remains of the chopped-up masuku. "We have no money to raise our families. We have nowhere to run, nothing else to do. So we have to cut the trees to feed our families."

In few places do the dictates of modern environmentalism butt so painfully against economic reality as they do here in Malawi.

Two-thirds of the nation's 12 million people earn less than a dollar a day, according to the United Nations Human Development report. Nine-tenths of those two-thirds live in rural areas where both jobs and the odds of escaping poverty are nonexistent.


Movie Night

In my last post I mentioned how Georgina enjoyed the Lion King soundtrack, and indeed so did the rest of our staff. Because of this, Claudia and I had the idea that it would be fun to get the movie and show it to our staff. We planned it out for Wednesday and told our 3 staff that we were going to have a "video show" night and that we would provide food for them and their families. Despite visiting multiple video stores, checking the stacks of DVDs for sale on the street, and calling up a friend with kids we were unable to locate the Lion King. We were recommended to try out Ice Age instead, which our friend lent us. We bought 2 chickens, a bag of maize and two large pizzas (what is a movie night without pizza?). Georgina used the maize to make a huge amount of nsima and she also deep fried the chicken and made a vegetable "relish" because one of our gardeners is a vegetarian.
Below is a picture I took of a typical plate of nsima, meat and vegetable relish. Nsima is the white blob in the bottom left - for better or for worse it is the food that powers this country.

I rearranged the living room to make sure that everyone would have a place to sit and soon everyone was grabbing a plate full of food and a seat.
And I mean everyone. There were so many people Claudia and I could hardly believe it. Georgina brought everyone who was staying at her house and I felt like they just kept on coming. Brothers, cousins, a baby, children - I had no idea we had so many people living in our backyard! We also had our gardeners, one of their brothers and our night security guard. I set the TV up on two chairs that were on top of the dining room table and we started watching it.


Most of our audience had very limited English skills, but luckily the movie has a lot of physical comedy so there was plenty of laughter - although rarely at times I would have expected it. Most of them had never had pizza before, but everybody, even George our picky vegetarian gardener claimed to enjoy it (how could anyone not enjoy the food of the gods?). The next morning I asked George what he really thought about the evening. He said that it was great, and that even Lazaro, our other gardener whose English is limited knew everything that had happened in the movie. Apparently they had a long discussion about the movie after they got home!

We are hoping to do it again - next time with The Lion King. Does anybody know where I can find a copy?

The Mexican Mariachis of Malawi

I often encourage Georgina, our housekeeper, to put on some music while she is working. At first her selections were not too surprising like the Power of One, a movie soundtrack full of beautiful African singing. Then there were weeks when it was nothing but the Lion King. Lately though, I have been surprised. First it was Evita. I would hear her singing Don't Cry for Me Argentina, and she would play it over and over again. But the most surprising was the Mariachi CD Claudia brought back from Los Angeles. The CD is great to put on when we are eating enchiladas wrapped in Indian Chapatis, and we need a bit of imagination to make it feel like real Mexican food. A lot of the classic Mariachi songs are on it and there is plenty of Mariachi whooping and crying which makes me laugh every time I hear it. Needless to say it is pretty different than Malawian music. But Georgina couldn't get enough of it! I asked her what she liked about the CD, and she said that she knew a lot of the songs. I was surprised, but then she explained that they are the same songs as the ringtones from the mobile phones. I had never realized it before, but it is true, a lot of the popular ringtones are from Mexican Mariachis. Who would have guessed that a bit of Mexican culture was spreading through Africa via ringtones?

Cost of living in Malawi

Les-Longwe Miserables

Yesterday Geeta blogged a really insightful post about the sad
circumstances of a robbery
that happened to some friends of

" guards have often been the ones to steal from
their employers. It begs the question why the very people hired to
enforce the law, so easily break it? Well, to start, I think it has
something to do with how much they are paid.

...Most of the large development agencies have contracts with one of
the two large security companies in Malawi... security companies seem
to have no problem paying abysmally low wages to their
employees...Ex-pats go through these companies because it seems to be
more reliable than just hiring a guard from off the street...

But it’s sadly ironic that, in some cases, the very agencies on the
front lines of mitigating the food crisis in Malawi have contracts with
companies that do not pay their employees enough to mange this crisis
without external support. Doesn’t it seems obvious that the security
situation in Malawi will likely deteriorate as poor Malawians become
more desperate?

I really recommend reading the full post, but I want to
focus in on the injustice she highlights. We pay $100/month to one of
these companies (Securicor) for a night guard. Our guard sees about
$20-$30 of that money. Is that enough to survive on?

A few months ago our church (Capital City Baptist) included a handout
from the Center for Social Concern in the bulletin. Based on up-to-date
prices from markets in Lilongwe it laid out the cost of living for a
family of six. I thought it was fascinating so I will reproduce an
abridged version (in US dollars) here:


Paraffin $.60


Note that these are pre-famine prices - the cost of maize has more than
doubled since then. This also doesn't include the costs to send
children to school or paying for transportation. Should we be surprised
that security guards who work 72 hours a week for $25 a month are

Blogging Lilongwe

Malawi is a small place. The blogging world of Malawi is even smaller, and it makes it all the more fun when the real world intersects the online one.

A few weeks ago a blog popped up on on my Lilongwe search written by Tyler and Anna Sparks, a couple that I had been running with as part of the Lilongwe Hash. The blog was squarely aimed for friends and family back in the US, but it is interesting for me to see how others are sharing their lives with people who might never set foot in a developing country. Last week Anna began a post about shopping in Lilongwe by explaining that there are no Benetton shops here, despite her friend's innocent question resulting from noticing that Benetton seems to be everywhere. Relating this post to other friends in Lilongwe makes people laugh out loud - we don't even have a movie theater here.

It was fun to tell Anna that I was reading her blog, but it doesn't compare to what happened Monday night. We were hanging out at a friends house after running, and the host mentioned something about her roommate, Geeta, and I immediately said, "I have to meet Geeta!" I explained to our group of about seven (most of which didn't know Geeta) that I had found Geeta's blog and related some of the stories from it. When Geeta came home half an hour later she kind of freaked out to realize we had all been talking about her blog. But what freaked me out was that she immediately knew who I was from my blog! In the course of the evening it was revealed that another person in our small group had also been blogging about her life in Malawi (more to come about her later). We stayed around for a long time, and it was really fun and it felt different than the usual Lilongwe social scene - probably because we were a bunch of young North Americans. Geeta also blogged about the evening.

The blogosphere has some great networkers, like Ethan Zuckerman, who participate in local meetings of bloggers all over the world. I think physical communities encourage virtual ones, and I believe that making sure Malawi has a voice in this strange new world of blogging is critical. Hence, I am throwing around the idea of getting all of the Malawian bloggers that I know together for lunch. It could be the start of something. If you know of any other regular Malawians blogs please add a comment below.

Visiting Opportunity International Clients

Recently Claudia and I visited some OIBM clients in a nearby village.
Every client we met greeted us with a proud smile - proud of the
business that OIBM had helped them to setup. The first person we met was
a man who made buckets and watering cans out of sheet metal.

He explained to us how his loan had enabled him to buy more material, and how he soon had so much business that he needed to hire two more
employees to keep up with demand. We also visited a very young woman
named G.H. Ephraim who had started a very impressive business after
seeing her neighbor successfully do something similar.

OIBM had loaned her money to take her business to the next level, which she certainly was doing. The sign explained explained that her shop built and sold roofing, sofa sets, armchairs and more. She had at least 3 men working for her, and she seemed to efficiently manage it all even with her baby daughter strapped to her back no matter what she was doing. She called it a furniture shop, but I noticed she also had a stand full of relatively expensive bicycle parts for sale. Clearly GH is a serious business woman who knows how to put capital to work.

We spent the afternoon walking through the village hearing all sorts of
similar stories. And they are great stories - stories that resonate with
the American values of hard work and individual success. Indeed whenever
we met someone, we asked her (they were mostly women) what she had hoped
to achieve by getting a loan from OIBM. The answers were great and
mostly similar - to grow my business, to send my children to school.
However, towards the end of the day we met a woman who imposed a radical
shift on my perspective. She ran a five foot by 3 foot mud and cardboard
shop that sold soap and other necessities. When we asked her about her
goals, she said something that we hadn't yet heard - "to improve the
nutrition of my family". Unique, but again this fit comfortably in my
cultural lens, I could almost hear the American mothers saying - "We eat
too much McDonald's, no more frozen pizzas, I am going to buy more fresh
fruits and vegetables from the farmers market." When I asked her if she
had achieved her goals she said yes and explained "we are now able to
eat every day". In an instant my lens was shattered and my perspective
tumbled down from its naive perch. A nutritious diet meant eating. Period. Here is a picture of her with her healthy child.

Later we joined the women for a group meeting under a large acacia tree.
They greeted us with songs and dances. We went on to discuss the
benefits of saving money, but this time I didn't look through my lens of
retirement - we were talking about saving for next week.

Ethan Zuckerman at PopTech

Ethan Zuckerman is visiting PopTech and posting some really fascinating stuff on his blog. Ethan is a blogger, with a penchant for social networking (often via the blogosphere), and a love for Africa. Here are a few things that I thought appropriate for Hacktivate:

An interesting look into the technology and thinking behind the 100 dollar laptop.

Negroponte says at one point - “What would it mean for this project to fail? That we get a device six months late that costs $122.50?”

How about playing games for money:

He shows us some of the setups used by “gold farmers”, who kill the same monsters over and over again, making virtual gold which they can sell in the real world. They’re able to make about a dollar an hour doing this. Julian Dibble, a scholar of online gaming, did an experiment in gold farming on Ultima Online and discovered he could make about $47,000 a year, which is more than the median salary of school teachers in America.

Making a dollar an hour in Malawi would move you firmly into the middle class here. This makes me think there could be a huge market, not just for people selling virtual items they have earned in a virtual world, but merely for participating in a virtual world. The more real people, and the more diverse they are, the less virtual and more real it becomes.

Guardian blogs about Malawi famine

Interesting first hand account of a World Food Programme official searching out signs of the famine in Malawi.

My colleague also points out that the steady lines of people walking along the roadsides are an increasingly common sight in this part of Malawi. Most have walked tens of miles to get food from the market because they no longer have stocks of their own to fall back on.

link on microfinance and Opportunity International has a good article about microcredit/microfinance with a lot of quotes and stories from Opportunity International.

Advocates of microcredit, also called microfinancing, contend that it's a modern-day example of the old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life." The concept is to provide seed capital, in most cases less than $200, to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. The expected result for the businessperson's family is a self-sustaining

Hacktivate on the BBC

I can hardly believe it myself, but yesterday a BBC World Service reporter emailed me after reading Hacktivate and asked if he could interview me about the food crisis in Malawi. I was pretty freaked out, but assented, particularly after realizing that it was for a pilot program - what that means I still am not sure.
I was at OIBM yesterday so I told them about what was happening and they were excited but also visibly nervous for me. Multiple people warned me from saying too much about the corruption. Good thing most Malawians don't read my blog! I can't decide if their worries are the result of growing up under a dictator that banned men with long hair and the song Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkle not to mention free speech, or if it actually is dangerous to repeat what is already in all of the local newspapers.
It didn't matter anyway, because this wasn't being broadcast in Malawi, and well, lets just say that I have yet to perfect my witty silky smooth radio banter. Talking on the radio is hard!
The whole experience lasted maybe five minutes. The phone rang, I picked it up and Kevin Anderson-Washington, the reporter who had emailed briefly said hello then put me on hold for a few seconds during which I could hear the program in progress, someone else picked up asked me a question and passed me off, then I heard the slick sounding on-air reporter giving the 15 second version about what is happening in Malawi. He finished by saying, "I have Mike McKay from the weblog Hacktivate on with me now. Mike lives in Lilongwe the capital of Malawi. You have known a number of people that have already died from starvation, is that right?" At which point I pretty much choke. Well not quite, but it sure felt like it as I said, "No, I haven't known anyone personally, but my housekeeper's cousin's child died last week." And my uncle's paperboy's step-sister once shook the Pope's hand. Not my best. The host then quickly jumped to a reporter from Blantyre who was much smoother, but only repeated the first paragraph of about every article I have seen on the situation. They came back to me and I was able to talk about the scarcity of maize here in Lilongwe. The host then started talking about corruption and I became nervous. But the commentary was left to the guy from Blantyre and I was asked what I think most Malawians want the world to do for them. It felt like it was a leading question that I wasn't comfortable to answer. I certainly can't speak for many Malawians let alone the ones that are dying. I mumbled something about money and aid, the report was finished (with another mention of Mike McKay from Hacktivate, grin) and they hung up on me.
A few posts ago I highlighted the complexity of the issue and how it doesn't fit nicely into the package that our modern media produces. I think my experience supports this. They wanted to hear a story about a dying child, how the government isn't helping and how we need to send them money. In my perfect world the program would challenge the listener to think critically about a complex issue and the critical thinking would spill over into a discussion during dinner that would then lead to a personal call to action among everyone at the discussion. In fact, I wish my response to the final question could have been more consistent with what I have been writing here, namely that I think the most important thing to do about the situation in Malawi is to bring Africa and the plight of the poor to the forefront of our minds. To discuss it with friends, to examine our own lives relative to theirs, to live in the reality that our world is tiny and our neighbors are dying. Sure, Malawi needs a quick fix of cash to survive the hungry season, but it isn't until we as individuals have compassion for the collective individuals of the world that justice will reign.
It is great that the BBC is taking notice of the situation in Malawi, and tremendously exciting that they are taking notice of me. In an earlier post I mentioned how much power we have as individuals of the developed world in 2005, and I guess I am proving myself true. It is a lot of responsibility though.

Schools in Malawi

Yesterday morning I visited the school where the children of our housekeeper attend. By Malawian standards the school was quite wealthy. Indeed this school is situated in a neighborhood filled with ambassadors, wealthy tobacco families, and other expatriates. What makes it wealthy? There was a school building for starters. All of the windows may have been broken (from balls) and there is no electricity (fusebox was stolen) but these kids do have expansive grounds for playing and a classroom with chalkboards. The upper grades even had desks in their rooms. These kind of luxuries are nonexistent in most schools. Also there were books for the children, and each child had at least a pencil and a workbook to do their exercises in.

But I am getting ahead of myself. When I arrived at the school I was surrounded by at least 50 children all jumping up and down in unison singing "mzungu" which means white person. Mr. Ntolowa, who teaches and tutors our staff's children met me and introduced me to the headmistress. I signed the visitors log and was surprised to see that besides my mother-in-law and sister-in-law who had visited 6 months ago, the only visitors had been delivery people and a couple of parents.
I then went to Mr Ntolowa's first grade class and was greeted by about a hundred 6 year olds who jumped up and said, "Good morning sir, how are you?" They were very excited to have me in their classroom and it was fun to be there.

The students were much like any students at any school in America, expect much better behaved. There were some that were clever and anxious to learn, and some that were distracted, but most were somewhere in the middle. When Mr. Ntolowa asked a question there were dozens of eager hands flapping around for attention. Mr. Ntolowa taught a very creative English lesson. He had a cardboard box with a hole cut out in it to look like a TV. He told the kids he had to turn on the TV so they could watch the story of the farmer and the hare. As he read the story to them he rolled a long sheet of paper across the opening of the box with images he had drawn from the story on it. The kids loved it and comprehended quite a bit as they answered Mr. Ntolowa's questions.

I also visited a classroom for 12-13 year olds. The teacher, Jean, was a dominating force and the frayed end on the piece of bamboo she carried made me nervous about my own knuckles taking a rap. Despite her strong presence, the kids seemed to respect her and enjoy her snide comments. She was teaching about first aid and how to care for a fractured bone. The kids practiced creating splints with sticks and scarves and carried each other around. Next the students had to write answers to questions about first aid, and Jean asked me to walk around the classroom marking papers. I didn't even attempt to carry Jean's authority, and it was kind of strange to be looking over the kids' shoulders for errors, but I eventually got used to it.
With all of the famine and corruption happening in Malawi it filled me with hope to see these children learning and being just like kids anywhere. I will definitely be encouraging others to go for a visit and bring a simple lesson plan (as I want to do next time).
I actually forgot my camera yesterday, so the pictures in this post were taken by my my in laws Ursula and Andrea. I especially love this last one with Mr. Ntolowa and his class. There is so much going on it reminds me of a Where's Waldo. Click the picture for a larger version.

Google cares only about hurricane victims?

Just sent this to google:

I have been blogging a lot about the famine in Southern Africa. Adsense seems to detect something about donating or aid or something, and it is continuously showing public service ads to help hurricane victims. It is a bit offensive when 5 million people are starving in my Malawi and I have this gigantic ad about helping the hurricane victims in America. Any chance google could broaden its sense of public service to be more international?

I think helping Hurricane victims rebuild is very important, but I think Google should also be doing public service ads for other tragedies like the earthquake in Pakistan, and the famine in Africa.

Thanks to Jeff Rafter for pointing out the ad and supplying a screen shot.

Google's response:
We currently do not run paid Google ads on web pages that are determined
to contain potentially sensitive, negative, or non-family safe content by
our automatic contextual advertising system. At this moment, we are only
running Public Service Ads related to the hurricanes in the United States.

"potentially sensitive, negative, or non-family safe content" - I guess a famine kind of fits into all of these categories. I don't mind not showing ads, but I do think Google should expand their Public Service Ads.

Foreign aid makes African leaders rich

Today's top story in Malawi:

Malawi has launched an investigation into how $11-million in donor cash landed in former president Bakili Muluzi's private bank accounts, the anti-corruption agency said on Tuesday. link

A small grain of salt should be added to the above story. Recall that parliament (largely controlled by the former president) is currently trying to impeach the president. So this is definitely part of some political wrangling, yet I don't really doubt the charges, and I have a statistic to tell you why.

Estimated amount of African wealth held in foreign accounts, expressed as a percentage of African GDP: 172 link

This statistic tells me that as soon as anybody gets any money in Africa it is quickly transported to a foreign bank account. I think a good parallel statistic would be the total number of these foreign accounts as a percentage of the population of Africa. I am certain it would be miniscule, because the account holders are people like Muluzi, and they are filling it with money meant for the people that really need it.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see where this corruption charge goes. Claudia recently told me that there has yet to be a single corruption trial let alone a conviction. If only this implied that the level of corruption is low.

Malawi roundup

I was incredible honored and humbled to see Jim Minatel resolving to do something radical to help the world after reading my blog:
I propose we all pledge to give 10% of our individual discretionary spending to people who need it more than us, at home and around the world.. Don't miss the full post.

Some thoughts from Mzismasi Makiniki via Wilson's Almanac:

Before the recent famine in Niger there was a long period when there were increasingly strong appeals for aid, but nothing happened. We have now reached that time in Malawi � and people have already begun to die....Remember all the hype around the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where it was said that the world leaders would 'make poverty history'? Now these great powers cannot give a day�s military spending to save 12 million people on the edge of starvation in southern Africa.

Here is an interesting reason to add to my list explaining the famine in Malawi:

A deal for the country of Malawi to buy fertilizer from an unnamed Saudi Arabian company has been stopped because of a report that the company is linked to al-Qaeda

When in doubt blame the terrorists. link

Finally, the critical window is closing for Africa's 12 million facing starvation.

How to help Malawi

So a number of people have been asking me about how they can help the situation in Malawi. I think the most important thing to do is to talk about it with people that you know. As awareness increases so will the political and economic will required to help.

I wish the solution, even the short term solution, was just giving money to Malawi, but this is Africa and things are never that simple. Allow me to illustrate.

During the last famine one of Claudia's colleagues decided to help out her husband's family in the village. They drove to the village with 10 bags of maize and delivered it to the family. The next day the family was robbed and the the aunt was killed.

Sadly, this family is ineligible for food aid because they have relatives in the city. Claudia's colleague still helps, but now it is done very secretively, by hand delivering money through trusted sources with no obvious connection to the city. Perhaps the hardest part of all of this is that her husband's mother is raising 10 orphans in the village and there is little they can do to help.

On a larger scale, food aid often gets lost thanks to corrupt chiefs. The chiefs rule everything in village life, and it is not uncommon for them to sign a paper saying that they have received their villages food in return for a bit of cash or another type of favor. The chiefs get drunk, while the children in their village starve. The chiefs are an integral part of the socio-pseduo-political scene of Malawi.

In the short term getting food to these people, even if it is via corrupt chiefs is the only way to do it. World Vision and Oxfam are excellent organizations that you can trust will try their hardest to save lives.

In the long term I think microfinance initiatives like what Opportunity International is doing are going to move Africa out of this cycle of poverty. I admit heavy bias though, as my wife works at Opportunity International Bank of Malawi, and I am writing this post from their office. Yet I can tell you that at this very moment their are hundreds of clients packed into the banking hall, with just a few dollars worth of kwacha. They have come to save their money in a safe place for the ominous future or perhaps to get a loan to start a business that will enable them to triumph over the hungry season. Given proper tools (like financial services) I have genuine hope that Malawians won't have to face another famine.

Hunger crippling Malawi

Last week the child of my housekeeper's cousin died. The family is very poor and live in a village less than 30 minutes away from us. The child had been in the hospital twice already in the past couple of months, but there wasn't enough food for the child so its stomach swelled up and the child died of malnutrition on Friday. The family has nothing, so Georgina had to go and get the body from the hospital and pay for it to be transported back to the village. Georgina and her husband don't seem to be very surprised or worried by the coming hungry season. "Many children will die" - and that is just a part of life here.

People are asking me how this could be happening and there is no simple answer, just a lot of complex issues. Here is a list of some of them:

* There is a drought that caused the rain to stop 2 months early last year.
* The soil is worn out from 2 centuries of intensive and exclusive maize cultivation.
* 200 years ago colonizers introduced maize to Malawi and forced them to stop growing local crops adapted to the local environment and switch to 100% maize.
* Despite having one of the largest lakes in Africa there is virtually no irrigation. In Malawi irrigation is having a woman carry a water-filled bucket on her head from the nearest water source. This means farms just a few miles from the lake dried up this year.
* "Only nsima satisfies". Most Malawians eat nsima exclusively - a sort of maize (corn) dumpling for every meal. It is low on nutrients, but sits like a rock in your stomach. If there is no maize they don't eat.
* Developed countries subsidize their own farmers effectively locking Africans out of the world food market.
* Malawi exports more tobacco than any other country. Farmers grow tobacco instead of food. This year the tobacco prices were half of what they were last year.
* Last year the government promised subsidized fertilizer but delivered it 3 months after it needed to be applied.
* The government is almost 100% focused on political infighting. Efforts to impeach the president have been continuing for 6 months now.
* Malawi has the highest import costs of any country in the world. This is mostly the result of transportation monopolies owned by the same people that run the government. Controlling the army, the roadblocks, and the customs officials is a definite competitive advantage. It doesn't make it easy to import food.

I could go on, but I want to underline that hunger in Malawi is a complex issue. It couldn't be fully explained by a 30 second CNN blurb or a newspaper article. Perhaps this is why there is such little coverage in the mainstream news. Once there are pictures of children with bloated stomachs and flys covering their faces it will be a "good" story. It is easier to care about a tragedy than to care about avoiding one - even an imminent one.

In the past two weeks the price of a 50kg bag of maize (almost enough to feed a small family for a month) has doubled from about $6 to $12. The price will continue to increase for the next 4-5 months. Of course one can only get that price if they can find it for sale. A friend's housekeeper walked 10 miles through Lilongwe last week after hearing a rumour that maize was for sale on the other end of town. Upon arrival he was disappointed and thanked by being robbed and beaten as he was returning home. People are already desperate and it will only get worse.

More than 5 million people (half the population) are expected to face food shortages. When maize does arrive it requires hours if not days of waiting in line to receive a 5kg ration. The economy is already slowing as people leave work to find food, and the country and its slow march to development is sliding further backward.

OIBM is trying to preempt some of this, and has bought more than 50 tons of maize, which will be sold at cost to its own 100 employees. But the 30,000 clients OIBM depends on will have no such option. How OIBM is effected remains to be seen.

Perhaps you can call your local politician, or write an editorial for your newspaper. Your senator or MP or even you could become the person that gets the millions of dollars needed to carry Malawi through this disaster. Put them in contact with me. If you have a blog write about what is happening here. An average individual in the developed world has tremendous power and influence, more now than at any other time in the history of the world. Use it to save a life and give hope to Malawi.

Previous posts about the famine in Malawi:
Blood On Our Hands/
Hunger Hits George's Family
Bad News From Malawi

The circle of life


Before we arrived at the site of the kill we passed a buffalo killed
days ago. There were dozens of vultures, squawking and fighting, waiting
their turn to plunge their black heads into the carcass.

Further on we saw a buffalo tumbled over the hill flat on its back. 20
yards on and another dead buffalo, this one had water all around it.
They had just been returning from a drink at the river. About 10 yards
behind the buffalo a lioness stood guard. She was guarding this buffalo
for her man.

On the right, in the shade sprawled a male lion with his favorite
lioness beside him. These lions had 3 freshly killed buffalo, but they
had already eaten their fill. These lions were fat and sleeping in food
comatose. We got within 5 yards, they stirred and stared at us.

The male rolled out of his drunken slumber, drunk on blood. He yawned,
then sauntered towards the cliff over the river. The sun was setting
orange and purple and the lion surveyed the land, his land.

A soundtrack to hack to

I am getting a little freaked out by this blogging stuff. I have just realized that a number of people were listening in on the conversation I thought I was mostly just mumbling to myself. Any sane person would just shut up, oddly enough I am drawn on. So to chase any hooners away I thought I would spew forth on music for a change.

When I am on my laptop (>12 hours a day) I need tunes. For me, the ideal conditions for logical thinking are a separation of mind and body - a separation characterized by a rhythmic bobbing of the head to some sort of low frequency rhythm. As my head bobs, the code flows.

I find the best source for music is a public radio station in Los Angeles called KCRW. They are basically an NPR affiliate but they also do a lot of music - cutting edge, non-corporate, non-mainstream, and absolutely beautiful. They offer an all music stream which cuts out the news, and I streamed this constantly when we were living in Oxford. Thanks to StreamRipper I managed to save hundreds of hours worth of KCRW music. Its a bit low brow to point proudly to your music collection which is just a modern version of cassette tapes copied from the radio with DJs, advertisements, jingles and all - but that is what I am doing. Sadly I haven't been able to update my collection in 9 months, but recently I discovered another KCRW groupie here in Lilongwe and she has access to a satellite connection (grumble, grumble, spit) at her work (US government). I have taught her how to save the streams, so as soon as I get our laptops together and music transferred I will have new music to groove to.

Apparently a lot of artists get their first play on KCRW. Dido, Nora Jones, David Gray, and lots of Latino bands are on the KCRW first play Curriculum Vitae. So I thought I would mention a few songs/bands that I don't think will go onto Britney Speardom, but struck me as quite crazy cool. Apologies if any of these have indeed reached Britney Speardom - I have been out of it for a while.

Firs two bands. I wouldn't be surprised if these two have gone a bit mainstream, but I think they are both great. The Dresden Dolls have a sort of Gothy feeling - and I really like "Coin Operated Boy" - a song expressing frustration about the shortcomings of human relationships with lines like "Love without complications galore" remind me of Isaac Asimov's I Robot.

Next is Le Tigre - a butch lesbian band that absolutely rocks. Oddly some of their music kind of sounds like cheerleaders rapping to a disco beat. I totally dig it.

Now to the songs, most of which I have no idea who sings them, but who cares when we have google.

Portland, Oregon. I have no idea why I like this song so much. The rough female vocalist sounds straight out of backwoods Oklahoma, and I think she is what makes this song so unique. It opens with her rasping, "Well Portland Oregon and Slow Gin Fizz, if that ain't love then tell me what is". The guitar work and blend of sounds are fantastic. They get drunk and fall in love. End of story, play it again Sam.

If Jesus drove a motor home. I love stuff that takes Jesus out of the confined religious rhetoric of 2000 years and paints him as the kind of person that would be best friends with a bunch of rough illiterate fishermen. This song isn't attempting any kind of seriousness, but somehow it speaks to me:
If Jesus Drove a motorhome and he come to your town
would you try to talk to him, would you follow him around?
Buddha on a motorcycle
Mohamed on a train
Here come Jesus in the passing lane
But everybody smile cause everybody groovin'
Ain't nothing like feeling the movin'
With a bonafied motorized savior
We'd be cool wherever we roam if Jesus drove a motorhome

Summertime Girlfriend - This is a completely random song about one guy's girlfriend and the free-spirited seasonal devotion he has to her. It is a feelgood, forget about reality and fade into meaningless kick-back beach bumdum. With a simple rhyme of, "She's my summertime girlfriend, I hope summer never ends" and the classic "I dedicate my life to her tan lines" I was hooked.

Honorable Mention
Rabbit Hole by Lizzie West

There is also some killer drum and bass and techno that find their way onto the late night shows like Metropolis and Nocturna. If I didn't have a night guard watching me and the human need for sleep I would just dance under the moon all night every night.

Finally the show Chocolate City with Garth Trinidad is a cultural treasure. He transcends hip hop, plays meaningful rap, and exposes authentically African music, but I think the gems are when he integrates spoken word artists into his set. LA has quite the scene for African American spoken word poetry, and you can bet your ClearChannel corporate losers that you won't hear it on any frequency but Chocolate City's.

Thanks KCRW.

Pictures from Zambia


We were very lucky and found a leopard in broad daylight about 1 minute before it took off running. We followed it and found it in a tree with its prey - a freshly killed baby warthog hanging from the leopard's mouth in the same way that a cat carries its kittens. The mother warthog was squealing and running around not certain where her baby was or if she would be the next victim. Here is the leopard just before it made the kill.

If all of this art safari talk has made you interested here is an article from the current issue of Wanderlust magazine describing a trip in detail.

$100 Laptop

Just in case you haven't heard about the $100 laptop I thought I would mention it on my blog. An army of these in Malawi would be so awesome.

The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. These rugged laptops will be WiFi- and cell phone-enabled, and have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel.

I am a firm believer that end users come up with the coolest innovations, and I can't wait to see what a million kids in Africa do with their laptops.

Drawing Elephants

As long as you promise to keep in mind my utter lack of experience in drawing then I will show you some of my work from the Art Safari. Deal? Okay, so here you go. I mentioned some of the exercises that Mary-Anne taught us in my previous post, and I wanted to show you what the results were. The first one resulted in something that I thought genuinely pretty cool. The challenge was to draw an elephant with only straight lines:

I was quite surprised how it came together. I like to think of it as an Avant Garde ellie. Next the challenge was to draw an elephant without taking the pencil off of the paper - sort of a continuous curve elephant I suppose. Keep in mind that we were doing this with live, trumpeting elephants surrounding our vehicle - elephants that never held their position for more than 10 seconds.

Finally, do you like big butts? Well they don't get much bigger than this one:

Possessing the Beauty of a Place

"I have not been trying to teach you to draw only to see" - John Ruskin

I read a book a while back called the Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. One chapter in particular impacted me from the book (you can read my full review here). Essentially the chapter examines beauty and the human desire to possess it. People often take pictures and buy tacky souvenirs in an attempt to hold on to a place or a moment. But The Art of Travel offers a different suggestion lifted straight from John Ruskin and that is to attempt to draw the beautiful, particularly while traveling. I was never one to draw or paint or really even doodle - so this idea really struck me with its freshness. A few months ago I met Mary-Anne Bartlett, a British woman who leads art safaris. Her groups travel around Central Africa and they draw and paint with Mary-Anne teaching and guiding as they go. This sounded like the perfect way to gain the new discipline recommended by Ruskin and de Botton, so when I heard she was leading a trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia while Claudia was in Los Angeles I jumped at the opportunity.

The only trouble with all of this is that I was starting at absolutely zero, thankfully Ruskin reassured me:

"A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than make yourself a giraffe."

So I didn't need to aspire towards art, but just to learn how to observe through the process of drawing. Mary-Anne agreed and assured me that my inexperience would not be an obstacle.

And it was great! Spectacular even. Our group, including Mary-Anne, consisted of just six of us. Everyone else had quite a bit of experience in drawing and painting, but they were extremely encouraging. Every evening we shared our work by candlelight offering suggestions, critiques, and most importantly encouragement - which was a bit scary at first, but I found it all really helpful and readily applicable the next day as we did it all again.

We were also helped along by an absolutely stunning week of animal sightings in the park. We had elephants wandering through our camp and a massive thunderstorm to provide flashes of intense scenery. It was the Africa of the Lion King and the menagerie of Eden. I couldn't help but look for a just landed Noah's Ark unloading all of God's creatures for my viewing pleasure.

Previous safaris have been great, but once we had checked off the animals and enjoyed the Gin & Tonic at sunset I was pretty much ready to go home. This safari was different. It takes hours of looking at an elephant or an impala before you know the bumps and stripes and the shades and how the leg bends or the tail attaches - and this information is critical for drawing them. But these animals don't pose for an hour, so every animal sighting is a new opportunity to see something new in these creatures. Mary-Anne had us do various exercises, like drawing an impala in 30 seconds, or making an elephant with only straight lines, or drawing a zebra without lifting your pencil from the paper. These constraints provided freedom to just get something down and not focus on my inabilities - and it worked. When I look at my drawings I return to the moment - the impression, of the scene. My scribbles aren't anatomical studies, but they have definitely captured something, a movement or a particular shape, and most often a bit of the beauty that I experienced.

I haven't worked out how I am going to make all of my future wildlife excursions and travels into "art safaris", but I am resolved to try.